This large hardcover book focuses on little-known areas of the Martin Goodman publishing empire, which included the various comics companies that became Marvel Comics. The title is a little misleading because the history it details is not secret, and the spotlight is on the pulp magazines put out by Goodman, with the comics taking a back seat. Last year I read “Marvel Comics, the Untold Story” by Sean Howe, which is much more focused on the comics company, though light on details about the 1940s and 1950s, which are the main focus of this book, so they do fill different niches. The Howe book is better written, this one tends toward bombast and sensationism, and some of the information is repeated in different sections, but on the whole it’s not a bad book, and for someone like myself interested in the pulps and their connections to comics, it’s well worth reading.

Much is said about Martin Goodman, and in some ways this is close to biography for him, except that Martin’s immediate family did not contribute, so many stories and opinions are second or third hand. Still, a picture of the man and his working methods does emerge, and it’s not particularly attractive. Even Stan Lee has a hard time finding good things to say about his former boss. I’m sure this is one reason why the family stayed away if they were asked. Like the Howe book, this one has almost no images from the comics, with the Captain America one on the cover and one early comic cover being about the only exceptions. I know Marvel declined to give permission to Howe unless they could have control over the text, and that may have been the same here.


Instead the book is profusely illustrated with art and covers from the Goodman pulp magazines (and a few other types like large-size slicks and digests) in black and white and in color. After the main text by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, which comprises about the first third of the book, there are lengthy artist profiles featuring art from the pulps and magazines by artists mostly known for their comics work. Jack Kirby is first up with the longest section (and the only artist mentioned on the cover). While it’s interesting to see this early work, much of it probably collaborations with Joe Simon, I didn’t find it all that appealing for the most part. The art printed poorly on the old interior pulp paper to begin with, and the style is not as dynamic as later Kirby work. Some of the other artists represented interested me more, like Alex Schomburg (with surprisingly sadistic examples), Bill Everett, Frank R. Paul, Al Williamson, and even some cartoons by Artie Simek.


The pulp covers are great, many with paintings by J.W. Scott, who filled the “favorite cover painter” role for Goodman like H.J. Ward did for Harry Donenfeld’s pulp empire, though the example above is by Norman Saunders, a painter I like better.

If you’re looking for lots of info on the Marvel Comics of today that really began in the 1960s, this book will not help you much. For that the Sean Howe book is much better. If you’re interested in art and magazines of the 1930s-1950s, you’ll find a lot more here for you. And, of course, learning about the company bosses can be enlightening too.


Secret History of Marvel Comics by Bell and Vassallo

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